Protesters rally for women and abuse victims at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Dallas in 2018.
Screenshot: Dallas Morning News

Leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, which represents 47,000 churches and 15 million people who belong to the second-largest faith in America, has, for decades, enabled church leaders who raped, molested, and abused as many as 700 victims over the span of 20 years.

Since 1998, of the 380 church leaders and staff who allegedly sexually abused victims, most have have been convicted, successfully sued, confessed, or resigned. But according to a new investigation by the San-Antonio Express and the Houston Chronicle, nearly three dozen church staff and volunteers “who exhibited predatory behavior” were taken back in by the church, which “failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct,” and some registered sex offenders came back to the pulpit—including one preacher who sexually assaulted a teen. The SBC bans gay people and women from becoming pastors, but has no laws against allowing convicted sex offenders from working in churches.

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The newspapers report on Debbie Vasquez, a survivor who in 2006 sued her former church and pastor and has been advocating for reform. She and other victim advocates have been demanding reforms for more than a decade:

She was 14, she said, when she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, a tiny prairie town an hour north of Dallas. It was the first of many assaults that Vasquez said destroyed her teenage years and, at 18, left her pregnant by the Southern Baptist pastor, a married man more than a dozen years older.

In June 2008, she paid her way to Indianapolis, where she and others asked leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 churches to track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers. Vasquez, by then in her 40s, implored them to consider prevention policies like those adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.

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In 2008, then interim SBC Executive Committee president August Boto rejected a draft of reform proposals, writing that abuse was sad, but inevitable. “What we’re talking about is criminal,” Boto wrote. “The fact that criminal activity occurs in a church context is always the basis of grief. But it’s going to happen. And that statement does not mean that we must be resigned to it.”

Churches within the SBC have local autonomy, and leadership has let the matter rest at the discretion of individual pastors. In a 2007 email to Vasquez, he wrote, “There is no question that some Southern Baptist ministers have done criminal things, including sexual abuse of children. yet left the matter up to “local churches to be more aggressively vigilant.”

Southern Baptist Convention president J.D. Greear responded to the report on Twitter, calling the abuse “pure evil” and promising “pervasive change.”

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“We must admit that our failures, as churches, put these survivors in a position where they were forced to stand alone and speak, when we should have been fighting for them,” Greear wrote. “Their courage is exemplary and prophetic. But I grieve that their courage was necessary.”

In June 2018, protesters rallied against misogyny in the church at the SBC’s annual conference in Dallas. They called for mandatory training on domestic abuse and sexual assault for pastors and seminaries and the creation of a a clergy sex offender registry. While the SBC approved the resolutions, according to the Tennessean, the “resolution is a nonbinding statement,” meaning individual decisions are still up to church leaders. While Greear and SBC leadership have since welcomed conversations with abuse survivors, it’s unclear how much will change going forward.

As Ann Marie Miller, who was sexually assaulted by a former employee of the South Carolina Baptist Convention as a teenager, said of Grear’s leadership: “I was really, really hopeful that it was a turning point, but I’ve been disappointed that there hasn’t been any meaningful action other than forming committees and assigning budgets, which is just good old Baptist red tape.”

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“That’s just what you do — you form a committee, and you put some money towards it and no change actually happens.”

Read the full report at the Houston Chronicle.